Piano Masterclass by Toh Chee Hung


Toh is a renowned Singaporean pianist who has performed and taught in London, USA, Canada, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey and the Far East. She is a regular visitor to Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Malaysia (home country of her husband, acclaimed pianist Dennis Lee, who is also an adjudicator at the Performers’ Festival). She mentored two students on Wednesday afternoon:

1. Seven-year-old Chu Ziming played the complete Clementi’s Sonatina Op 36 No 3. This is a very nice, smooth piece of music that is like breathing, like a concersation. Toh reminded the boy that he must remember to express his feelings through his touch, matching the action to the beautiful tune as playing the piano is not just doing the action. With each change of touch, tension is added; so it must be musical and gradual and not everything at once, like a punch. Toh had a way of explaining to this little boy what is meant by dolce, or a warm tone, or a marked staccato, or a legato, encouraging him to use his “secret weapons” more to make appropriate sounds. Ultimately, a pianist has to be his most attentive and severe teacher! Just trust your musical instincts and listen to yourself. Music must be natural and sincere and never go beyond what is musically reasonable. One must be really sincere talking to the piano; befriend the piano. (For eg, there are 12 E’s consecutively, but all are different: listen to the nice movements and story lines underneath the different E’s.) All actions that you have and that you do to the piano will have results. Inside the music is a whole new world to discover, just like reading: there are different ways of making a note happen; it’s what you think that’s important.

2. Loh Jia Wei gave Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 5 in C Minor Op 10 No 1 (2nd movement: Adagio Molto in A flat major) a warm glow. When Toh found out the it was Jia Wei’s 11th birthday, she started to play Happy Birthday’ on the piano and got him to continue while she sang the last two lines. Jia Wei’s father was grinning from ear to ear. (He might have been thinking: what a good choice of a birthday present for my son.)

The first thing Toh said was to quote Mozart: A lot of music is used in my rests. She then went on to explain that this is because rests are also music. Silences are the beginning of music. Special care must be taken when pedalling; this is difficult to do but it is mind over matter and intention. A lot of planning is needed to know where the journey is: the longer the line, the deeper the vision/music. The secret is to listen attentively to the balance. There are several ways of playing a legato:

  • using a pedal wisely;
  • matching one tone to the next (a constant gradation of tone);
  • listening for the tail of the tone and match it to the next (technically very difficult);
  • legato fingering (therefore planning is necessary to get the best legato);
  • quality of touch, much like portato (from the Italian portamento meaning the carrying of the sound from note to note smoothly and without any break, hence very legato and momentarily sounding the pitches in between any two indicated by the notation);
  • with the right touch, there is no need for pedalling.

Then, there is also rhythmic pedalling and syncopated pedalling; but what is important is the interesting message being conveyed. Whenever the music is in semitones, pedalling has to be used with much care.

Toh then went on to talk about the Art of Piano Playing. (The theory of how the music is put together is always interesting.) She also explained at length how Beethoven spent a lot of time on figuring out how to teach his pupils to play, how to change the quality of tone, how to articulate the touch with the control of fingers, how ornaments and  legatissimo are to be played, popular oversight of pianists, how the study of what muscle to use and what muscle not to use makes a difference to having a good temperament, how to ensure sound carries and matters of pedal skills and touch.

I felt Toh really packed a lot into her 30minute lessons. I look forward to attending more masterclasses by Toh.

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